When American Heritage magazine debuted 50 years ago, its founders explicitly intended it to make history lively and accessible to a larger audience. Hailing from Life magazine and Time, they saw it as little different in approach or style from those publications. That is, American Heritage was going to use all the tools of the best contemporary journalism to make history as fresh and vivid for its readers as the latest news.
They well understood that it matters how history is told, and also that like the news itself, the story is subject to interpretation and revision. The fact is, history is not simply the past conveyed to us in some abstract perfection. It is an ongoing debate about what happened and what it means.
This point is abundantly demonstrated in the pages that follow, both in the books our contributors recommend and in their comments about them. John Demos, who writes here on the colonial era, is especially direct and clear about the matter. I am also put in mind of it for a very personal reason.
In addition to being American Heritage’s golden anniversary, this year marks the centennial of the arrival of my grandfather, B. C. Forbes, in America. The preparation of a short film to mark the occasion prompted me to look back at a book he had published in 1917, shortly before starting Forbes magazine. Entitled Men Who Are Making America, it is a collection of 50 profiles of the leading businessmen of the day. In its pages, business is an engine of hope and opportunity, and successful businessmen are sources of inspiration, worthy of emulation. This view resonated in the booming 1920s but undoubtedly seemed naive at best in the years of the Great Depression, when the kind of men he celebrated were infamously dubbed “robber barons.”
Inevitably, the telling of history reveals as much about its tellers and their times as it does of the events that they recount. The meaning of the past ultimately belongs to the present, and perspectives change. Bruce Catton, one of the founding editors of American Heritage, explained the purpose of this magazine by posing the simple question, “What did people do there?” Whether in business or in politics, in battle or in everyday life, the answers are endless and endlessly fascinating.
Whatever your particular historical interests may be, this special anniversary issue is overflowing with terrific suggestions for further reading. And I can’t resist the opportunity to add one more to the list. Get and read An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power, by American Heritage’s business columnist, John Steele Gordon (whose recommendations for 10 other books about the nation’s business past can be seen on our list of recommendations). It offers a genuinely fresh perspective and a lively telling of its subject.